News & Current Affairs

September 15, 2008

Insight: Who runs Russia?

Insight: Who runs Russia?

Vladimir Putin (L) and Dmitri Medvedev

Vladimir Putin (L) and Dmitri Medvedev must agree policy decisions

Getting to the bottom of the shadowy depths of Kremlin decision-making is tricky. Machiavellian power struggles, dark paranoia of security chiefs and long fingers of corruption can turn seemingly rational and transparent explanations inside out.

But even public signals are instructive, and in the wake of the Georgia crisis, Russia’s leadership is taking stock and has several messages for the West.

The first key question about Russia is – who is really in charge?

The standard answer is President Medvedev as Commander in Chief. He, and only he, ordered Russian troops across the border to hit back when Georgia attacked on South Ossetia.

But presidential power is now the tip of an iceberg. What murky currents swirl beneath the surface is less clear.

Dmitry Medvedev says he was caught unawares and admits his relative inexperience.

“I was on holiday on the Volga when the defence minister called,” he said at a conference of the so-called ‘Valdai Club’ of foreign academics and journalists who specialize in Russia.

“I’ll never forget that night, knowing the consequences there would be when I gave the order to return fire… especially when I’d only been president for 95 days,” he said.

But what about Russia’s ex-president, now his prime minister, who was also at the conference?

“However much authority I have, whoever I may be talking to, none of the troops or tanks would have moved an inch until President Medvedev’s order,” was Vladimir Putin’s attempt to deny his own importance when we asked about his role, thereby indicating that his clout and involvement were considerable.

Bridget Kendall
1998 to present: BBC diplomatic correspondent
1994-98: Washington correspondent
1989-94: Moscow correspondent

What is more, at the outset of the crisis, when Mr Putin was in Beijing for the opening of the Olympic Games, he was already thinking about Russia moving swiftly to recognize the two enclaves at the heart of the crisis.

He had taken the time, he told us, to inform the Chinese leadership that Russia would understand if Beijing chose not to react.

Double act

It begs the question – who is really driving policy, the president or the prime minister?

The choreography and timing of our audiences with both were instructive.

A pair of three-hour meetings, two elegant luncheon settings, two declarative statements for Russian TV cameras at the start, and even two carefully informal blue suits with matching ties.

All to signal, perhaps, that their status is equal – a dual leadership exercising power in tandem.

I never thought I’d need to use harsh rhetoric when I began this job. But there are some moments as president when you are left with no choice
Russian President, Dmitri Medvedev

Indeed one senior government official made a point of emphasizing the duality, constantly referring to them in the same breath.

Policy decisions had to be cleared with both, he said. And what was wrong with that? A double act surely strengthened, not muddled governance, requiring a green light from two instead of one.

We met Mr Putin first. Almost the entire discussion was devoted to foreign policy.

He was burning to give his point of view. He seemed supremely confident, engaged and in charge. His anger at the way he felt Russia had been treated in recent years blazed through, as though it was his own personal animosity which is now firing and fuelling current policy.

It was hard to remember he was no longer president.

Economic policy, supposedly at the heart of his new job as prime minister, came up sporadically and he admitted he is still mastering his new brief.

When he did comment directly on Dmitry Medvedev, the impression he left was curious.

Mr Putin seemed to want to play up the differences between them, as though suggesting a “good cop, bad cop” routine.

He described himself as “conservative” and with an uncharacteristic flash of self-deprecation admitted his penchant for blunt speaking was sometimes a liability.

Whereas he described Dmitry Medvedev as bright, young and highly educated, with modern and – he stressed this twice – liberal views.

“He’s a good lad,” said Mr Putin a touch condescendingly, as though recommending his young protege to a would-be employer for a new job.

The aim, it seemed, was to send a signal to the West that Dmitry Medvedev is indeed more flexible and reformist than Putin himself – and was forced to act tough because the crisis left him no option.

Moral high ground

So the US and its allies should understand they had made a big mistake by allowing this conflict to happen – and they would make an even bigger mistake unless they made the compromises Russia now wants.

When we met Dmitry Medvedev he underscored the point.

“I never thought I’d need to use harsh rhetoric when I began this job. But there are some moments as president when you are left with no choice,” he said.

“I very much don’t want the Caucasus crisis to destroy Russian co-operation with Europe and the United States,” he elaborated, and suggested he felt frustrated at his new role of “President of War”.

He’s a good politician, I think I have a better opinion of George than most Americans
Vladimir Putin on George W Bush

“A whole month has been lost on this war… I’d rather have been doing other things,” he said. “Yesterday when I met the defence and finance ministers, instead of talking about car and tractor production, we had to discuss where to deploy the Russian army. Priorities have had to change.”

So what, then, at this juncture does Russia want from the West?

The first message is that the Russian government is in no mood to compromise.

It insists it occupies the moral high ground in this crisis and sees no reason to give way.

This was tantamount to Russia’s 9/11, President Dmitry Medvedev declared to us, a defining moment in national policy and in relations with the outside world.

That conviction was echoed from top to bottom in our discussions with government officials, mainstream academics and journalists, all of them insisting Russia had no choice but to respond militarily and take South Ossetia and Abkhazia under its wing.

Any suspicion that Russia cunningly laid a trap that Georgia rashly walked into was dismissed as an outrageous lie.

The idea that by deploying troops deep inside Georgia and unilaterally recognising the two disputed enclaves’ independence Russia had gone too far was rejected out of hand.

The suggestion that by invading Georgian territory, and asserting its right to redraw the map, Russia made itself look like a bully, was also thrown out.

Instead President Saakashvili was blamed for triggering the conflict.

The United States had nudged him into it and rashly armed and trained his men while Europeans had looked the other way.

Any Western criticism to the contrary was hypocritical, given interventions in Kosovo and Iraq, and yet another example of anti-Russian hysteria and unfair stereotyping, based on prejudices left over from the Cold War.

Red line

Curiously both Mr Putin and President Medvedev were carefully respectful when it came to President Bush.

“He’s a good politician, I think I have a better opinion of George than most Americans,” said Mr Putin, at the same time complaining that he had twice tried to get the US president to intervene.

Instead it was Vice-President Cheney and the US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, with their Soviet expertise, who were targeted as villains, suspected of fueling anti-Russian sentiment in the US administration and egging Georgia on.

“We need to get rid of stereotypes. The US president has too many Sovietologists in his entourage,” observed Dmitry Medvedev caustically.

A Russian tank crosses a main route in Georgia

Russia is keen to avoid accusations of annexing Georgian territory

The second message that came through clearly was that Russia’s “red line” – any move to extend Nato to Russia’s borders by seeking to incorporate Georgia or Ukraine – still stands.

What Russia really wants is a new discussion on European security arrangements to replace Nato with something else entirely.

But short of that, attempts by the United States or Nato to rearm Georgia or to extend formal invitations to either Georgia or Ukraine to join the alliance seem likely to prompt a furious Russian response.

“Russia has zones that are part of its interests. For the West to deny it is pointless and even dangerous,” said President Medvedev.

“It’s unjust, it’s humiliating, and we’ve had enough. It’s something we are no longer prepared to endure,” he said. “You have a very clear choice here. Let there be no doubt about it.”

What exactly Russia would do to try to prevent this further Nato enlargement was left unclear.

“We’ll do all we can to make sure it doesn’t happen,” said Mr Putin carefully, talking about Ukraine.

Although on Georgia he noted Russian tanks had been within 15 kilometres of Tbilisi and could have taken the capital in four hours.

Economic concerns

So the hints of a threat, but not exactly – and that is interesting. Because the third message that came through was that Russia would like to think a major East-West confrontation can still be avoided.

There may well be powerful forces in Russia’s military and security elite, ultra nationalists who would like to see their country retreat from global integration and rely once more on internal resources – economic and military – as in Soviet days, to reclaim influence geographically and show the outside world Russia’s might can no longer be ignored.

Roubles being sorted at the Goznak mint in Moscow

Russia’s stock market value has fallen by 50% since May this year

But diplomatic and economic isolation does not seem to be what the Kremlin leadership currently wants to embrace.

The haste with which both Mr Putin and Mr Medvedev shrugged off the notion that Russia might have to pay a price for this crisis was telling.

They denied that the loss of nearly 50% of Russia’s stock market value from its all time high in May had much to do with the Georgia crisis.

A far more likely cause, they argued – with some justification, given what is happening on Wall Street – was the impact of global financial instability.

In comparison to many other countries, they insisted, Russia’s economy was in good shape – signs of capital flight were temporary. Foreign investors would be back. Russia’s energy resources were needed by everyone and it had weathered economic storms before.

The fact only Nicaragua had joined Russia in recognising Abkhazia and South Ossetia was also dismissed as unimportant, even if the glaring lack of overt diplomatic support for Russia’s actions appears to be a sensitive point.

When the leader of South Ossetia told us he intended to follow up independence by amalgamating his tiny republic with North Ossetia and becoming part of the Russian Federation, he was hurriedly slapped down. Within hours he had issued a retraction.

Outright annexation by Russia of what is, after all, legally speaking Georgian territory is an accusation Moscow seems anxious to avoid.

Yes, Russia wants to claim that the ball is now firmly in the court of the US and its allies – that it is up to them, not Russia, to decide how this geopolitical crisis plays out.

But behind all the moral outrage, I felt there was also a nervousness, a worry that if Russia’s bluff is called and further tensions with the West ensue, it might force a stand-off from which neither side could back down.

“There is a chill in the air and a loss of trust,” said Dmitry Medvedev, “but I don’t think this is a corner turn that will lead to a long confrontation. This is not what we want. And it’s not what you want either.”

Advertisements

August 30, 2008

Russia moves to calm Georgia row

Russia moves to calm Georgia row

Russian troops in Tskhinvali, 29/08

Russian troops repelled Georgian forces from the breakaway regions

Russia has taken a series of diplomatic steps in an apparent effort to ease tensions with the West over this month’s conflict in Georgia.

President Dmitry Medvedev told UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown Moscow wanted more monitors from Europe’s security body in Georgia, the Kremlin said.

Separately, Russian and German foreign ministers agreed to seek to calm tensions over the crisis, Moscow said.

The issue is set to dominate the agenda of an EU meeting on Monday.

SOUTH OSSETIA & ABKHAZIA
BBC map
South Ossetia
Population: About 70,000 (before recent conflict)
Capital: Tskhinvali
President: Eduard Kokoity
Abkhazia
Population: About 250,000 (2003)
Capital: Sukhumi
President: Sergei Bagapsh

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said earlier this week that the bloc was considering sanctions “and many other means” against Russia over the crisis.

But he said he hoped the matter would “be solved by negotiation”.

Moscow’s military action in Georgia and its subsequent recognition of independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia – Georgia’s two rebel regions – have angered the West.

Moscow has defended its actions, saying they prevented a “genocide” in South Ossetia.

However, after the inflammatory rhetoric Russia now appears to have decided it is time for a bit of diplomacy, the BBC’s Rupert Wingfield-Hayes in Moscow says.

‘Non-existent threats’

During Saturday’s telephone conversation with Mr Brown, President Medvedev said Russia was “in favor of the deployment of additional OSCE [Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe] monitors in the security zone” in Georgia, the Kremlin statement said.

It said observers in the security zone would provide “impartial monitoring” of Tbilisi’s actions.

Earlier this month, the OSCE decided to increase the number of its military observers by up 100 in Georgia.

Mr Medvedev also said that Russia recognised Georgia’s regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia because of Tbilisi’s aggression.

He said that the Georgian move “fundamentally altered the conditions in which, during 17 years, attempts were made to settle the relations between South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Georgia,” the statement said.

In a separate development, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov spoke to his German counterpart, Frank-Walter Steinmeier.

They both “agreed on the need to put an end to attempts to use the situation surrounding Georgia… to raise tensions in Europe by speculating on non-existent threats concerning other post-Soviet countries,” a Russian foreign ministry statement said.

Ties cut

The conflict in the region began on 7 August when Georgia tried to retake South Ossetia by force after a series of lower-level clashes.

Russia launched a counter-attack and the Georgian troops were ejected from both South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Russian troops continued their operation, advancing deep inside Georgia’s territory.

An EU-brokered ceasefire brought a formal end to the conflict five days later, although each side has accused the other of breaking the agreement.

Russia has since withdrawn the bulk of its force and says the troops left behind are serving as peacekeepers.

Georgia has described them as an occupation force, announcing that it is cutting diplomatic relations with Moscow.

August 23, 2008

Russia’s neighbours go their own way

Russia’s neighbours go their own way

It is easy to assume that escalating tensions between Russia and the West could mean an end to the blurry fudges of the post-Cold War years and a recasting of East-West relations into black and white antagonism, with two opposing camps, each surrounded by its own sphere of influence.

Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili is flanked (right) by Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko in Tbilisi on 12 August

Ukraine’s leader (R) went to Tbilisi to back President Saakashvili

But look at how the Georgia crisis is being received around Russia’s edges. The response is often evasive, and sometimes downright surprising.

Among the countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), which 20 years ago were constituent parts of the USSR whose loyalty to Moscow was automatic, Russia has won remarkably few endorsements. Some Central Asian states have sent in aid to South Ossetia. But on the whole the response has been decidedly muted.

To be fair, Georgia too has drawn criticism. But gone are the days when Moscow could rely on satellite states to speak up for it. For Russia’s leaders to declare that Russia was and always will be the “guarantor of stability” in the Caucasus is now a risky statement that could repel as well as draw regional backing.

Its neighbours are now independent countries whose priority is not to please the Kremlin but turn any crisis to their advantage, or worry about how it might adversely affect them.

Economic interests first

Next door to Georgia in the Caucasus, Azerbaijan’s top concern is to keep the pipeline that runs from Baku through Georgian territory to Turkey free from threat of attack.

But President Ilham Aliyev is also apparently wary of aggravating Russia. He has now publically backed Georgia’s territorial integrity, but steered clear of more vigorous support of Tbilisi.

Elderly refugees from South Ossetia sit in a refugee camp in North Ossetia, Russia,  on 10 August

Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan have donated aid for Ossetian refugees

Landlocked Turkmenistan too, with its immense gas fields on the other side of the Caspian Sea, has a lively interest in making sure the Baku pipeline is not disrupted and Georgia remains a stable reliable partner.

It competes as well as collaborates with Russia as an energy supplier. It does not want one of its main outlets threatened.

And beleaguered Armenia, at the southern tip of the Caucasus, has even more reason to be alarmed. Any prolonged conflict in Georgia would disrupt all its supply routes.

Further west and closer to Europe in the “former Soviet space”, there has been an even more marked shift in governmental responses.

Tiny impoverished Moldova, on the border between Romania and Ukraine, has its own “frozen conflict” unsolved from Soviet days: the Russian-supported and heavily armed enclave of Trans-Dniester.

So this week Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin pointedly turned to the European Union for help in finding a peaceful way out of that stand-off.

Ukrainian ambivalence

In Ukraine, President Viktor Yushchenko from the very start saw Russia’s military intervention in Georgia as an implied threat. Ukraine too is a Nato aspirant, and Russia has frequently warned it that Nato membership is something it will not tolerate.

Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko (image from 14 July)

Yulia Tymoshenko is likely to run in the next election

So President Yushchenko was swift to define himself as the champion of Ukraine’s right to join Nato and defy Russian pressure.

Not only did he fly to Tbilisi to offer moral support, he issued a presidential decree to remind Russia that its Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol in the Crimea does, after all, use a Ukrainian port.

In future, he demanded, Russia must give 72 hours’ notice before moving its vessels and he once again raised the prospect that Ukraine might not renew its lease for the port when it expires in 2017.

But how Russia’s relations with Ukraine might unwind is not straightforward.

The fear has certainly been expressed in Kiev that a restive pro-Russian population in the Crimea might provide a pretext for another Russian military intervention. Russian nationalists who see the Crimea as historically Russian territory would seize any pretext to realise their ambitions, goes the argument.

What is certainly true is that a clash between Moscow and Kiev over the Crimea would probably cleave Ukraine in half and open up a dangerous conflict with widespread repercussions. But a more likely scenario is less dramatic.

Russia has only to wait for a change in Ukrainian politics. President Yushchenko may be a prominent leader but his long term-durability is not guaranteed. Opinion polls put his popularity at under 10%.

With presidential elections due in 18 months, the Kremlin may well reckon it can look for a more reliable partner in his likely opponent and current Prime Minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, who has been remarkably quiet on the Georgia crisis.

Mixed signals from Minsk

But perhaps the most interesting response has come from Belarus and its President, Alexander Lukashenko, sometimes described as “Europe’s last dictator”.

Belarussian police arrest demonstrators outside the Russian embassy on 11 August

Belarussian police pounced on anti-Russian protestors during the conflict

Only a few years ago Russia was such a close ally, there was talk of the two countries merging, so one might have expected him to back Russia’s action in the Caucasus.

But Belarus has had a series of bad-tempered rows with Russia over energy supplies and has recently shown more interest in improving Western contacts.

The initial response from Minsk to Russia’s intervention in Georgia was decidedly ambivalent – so much so, that the Russian ambassador there even publicly expressed his displeasure.

President Lukashenko then travelled to Sochi to reassure President Medvedev that Moscow’s military operation had been conducted “calmly, wisely and beautifully”.

But he took steps to clear the way for better relations with the US and Europe.

In the last few days the final three political prisoners in Belarus have been suddenly released – the beneficiaries, it seems, of an unexpected presidential pardon.

“It’s very significant,” said Britain’s Ambassador to Minsk, Nigel Gould Davies. “For the first time in a decade Belarus does not have any political prisoners.”

And watch this space. Whether Belarus is really serious about improving its relations with the West will be tested in September, when it holds parliamentary elections.

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.